Does body language really speak to us?

Some choice quotes from a fascinating article from the New York Times science section:

Most people think liars give themselves away by averting their eyes or making nervous gestures, and many law-enforcement officers have been trained to look for specific tics, like gazing upward in a certain manner. But in scientific experiments, people do a lousy job of spotting liars. Law-enforcement officers and other presumed experts are not consistently better at it than ordinary people even though they’re more confident in their abilities.

The common-sense notion that liars betray themselves through body language appears to be little more than a cultural fiction

There is no Pinocchio’s nose — no one cue that will always accompany deception

I was particularly pleased to see the research debunking the old NLP upward eye movement factoid cited yet again. When millions of dollars every year are spent in the USA on security theatre that relies on body language signals that are actually meaningless, and furthermore these discredited notions are being taught all over the world in behavioural training seminars (including those for law enforcement officers), then it’s important to keep on hammering home the facts.

Categories: Science, Sociology

Tags: , , , ,

5 replies

  1. I was talking about this with my director recently. He was saying he read a study which showed that most people can’t pick a liar any better than random chance when they are both watching and listening, but do much better when they are only listening (eg on the phone).

    • I’ve read mentions of that study, angharad. Interesting. It doesn’t fully surprise me because most people have much less awareness of how they sound versus how they look. I suspect a well-trained actor can lie just as convincingly on the phone as they do on the stage/screen.

  2. One thing that has come up fairly regularly since 9/11 has been criticism of the US airport security system compared to what Israel does. Where apparently the US generally rely on poorly trained people but with lots of high tech devices to help, Israel uses low tech solutions (and don’t make people take their shoes off) but with highly trained security people who it is claimed are very good at detecting potential terrorists.
    I would guess that the TSA’s move to look at body language as a factor is related to these ongoing claims.
    So assuming that the Israeli claims are correct (and I think there is some reasonable basis around the claim that they do face more threats than average country does and have a pretty good record) I wonder if the Israelis are just much better at training their security personnel?

    • The major thing that the Israelis do differently at Ben Gurion is ask individual passengers extensive questions about their travel history and plans before they are allowed to go through to the departure lounge, and those asking the questions are all army-trained security professionals looking for inconsistencies in the reasons-for-travelling stories. These interviews often last for over an hour and involve multiple interviewers to double-check narrative consistency.
      This procedure seems to be relying on various research studies showing that there are far more reliable verbal cues to liars than there are body language cues, and it seems to be working for them. It seems logical that it is primarily the extended interview process that leads to the Israeli success, and that process is expensive, and most other airports in the world are not willing to spend that much money. They don’t seem to be willing to spend money on the vacuum chamber testing for luggage either, which is the other main point of difference in the Israeli security procedures.
      That the for-profit contractors working for the TSA try to condense the complicated training and expensive staff costs of the Israeli procedure down to a few seminars on body language and security-theatre machines instead of rigorously trained people and expensive out-of-sight machines doesn’t surprise me, but that means they are trivialising the ongoing claims about the Israeli security successes, not emulating them. It’s smoke and mirrors rather than the real thing.

%d bloggers like this: